Category Archives: History of science

Having lots of letters after your name doesn’t protect you from spouting rubbish

The eloquently excellent Elegant Fowl (aka Pete Langman @elegantfowl) just drew my attention to a piece of high-grade seventeenth-century history of science rubbish on the website of my favourite newspaper The Guardian. In the books section a certain Ian Mortimer has an article entitled The 10 greatest changes of the past 1,000 years. I must to my shame admit that I’d never heard of Ian Mortimer and had no idea who he is. However I quick trip to Wikipedia informed that I have to do with Dr Ian James Forrester Mortimer (BA, PhD, DLitt, Exeter MA, UCL) and author of an impressive list of books and that the article on the Guardian website is a promotion exercise for his latest tome Centuries of Change. Apparent collecting lots of letter after your name and being a hyper prolific scribbler doesn’t prevent you from spouting rubbish when it comes writing about the history of science. Shall we take a peek at what the highly eminent Mr Mortimer has to say about the seventeenth-century that attracted the attention of the Elegant Fowl and have now provoked the ire of the Renaissance Mathematicus.

17th century: The scientific revolution

One thing that few people fully appreciate about the witchcraft craze that swept Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is that it was not just a superstition. If someone you did not like died, and you were accused of their murder by witchcraft, it would have been of no use claiming that witchcraft does not exist, or that you did not believe in it. Witchcraft was recognised as existing in law – and to a greater or lesser extent, so were many superstitions. The 17th century saw many of these replaced by scientific theories. The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo. People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor. But the most important thing is that there was a widespread confidence in science. Only a handful of people could possibly have understood books such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, when it was published in 1687. But by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a gradualist and don’t actually believe in the scientific revolution but for the purposes of this post we will just assume that there was a scientific revolution and that it did take place in the seventeenth century, although most of those who do believe in it think it started in the middle of the sixteenth-century.

I find it mildly bizarre to devote nearly half of this paragraph to a rather primitive description of the witchcraft craze and to suggest that the scientific revolution did away with belief in witchcraft, given that several prominent propagators of the new science wrote extensively defending the existence of witches. I recommend Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus triumphatus (1681) and Philosophical Considerations Touching the Being of Witches and Witchcraft (1666). Apart from witchcraft I can’t think of any superstition that was replaced by a scientific theory in the seventeenth-century. However it is the next brief sentence that cries out for my attention.

The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo.

By a strange coincidence I spent yesterday evening listening to a lecture by one of Germany’s leading historians of astronomy, Dr Jürgen Hamel (who has written almost as many books as Ian Mortimer) on why it was perfectly reasonable to reject the heliocentric theory of Copernicus in the first hundred years or more after it was published. He of course also explained that Galileo did not succeed in either disproving geocentricity or proving heliocentricity. Now anybody who has regularly visited this blog will know that I have already written quite a lot on this topic and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but I recommend my on going series on the transition to heliocentricity (the next instalment is in the pipeline) in particular the post on the Sidereus Nuncius and the one on the Phases of Venus. Put very, very simply for those who have not been listening: GALILEO DID NOT DISPROVE THE OLD IDEA THAT THE SUN REVOLVED AROUND THE EARTH. I apologise for shouting but sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Quite frankly I find the next sentence totally mindboggling:

People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor.

Even more baffling, it appears that Ian Mortimer has written prize-winning essay defending this thesis, “The Triumph of the Doctors” was awarded the 2004 Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society. In this essay he demonstrated that ill and injured people close to death shifted their hopes of physical salvation from an exclusively religious source of healing power (God, or Christ) to a predominantly human one (physicians and surgeons) over the period 1615–70, and argued that this shift of outlook was among the most profound changes western society has ever experienced. (Wikipedia) I haven’t read this masterpiece but colour me extremely sceptical.

We close out with a generalisation that simply doesn’t hold water:

[…] by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.

They did? I really don’t think so. By 1700 hundred the number of people who had “confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world” was with certainty so minimal that one would have a great deal of difficulty expressing it as a percentage.

Mortimer’s handful of sentences on the 17th century and the scientific revolution has to be amongst the worst paragraphs on the evolution of science in this period that I have ever read.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of medicine, History of science, Myths of Science

The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

In a footnote to my recent post on the mythologizing of Ibn al-Haytham I briefly noted the inadequacy of the terms Arabic science and Islamic science, pointing out that there were scholars included in these categories who were not Muslims and ones who were not Arabic. In the comments Renaissance Mathematicus friend, the blogger theofloinn, asked, Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists? And then in a follow up comment wrote, I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” From the standpoint of the historian of science this second comment is very interesting and reflects a common problem in the historiography of science. On the whole most people regard science as being that which scientists do and when describing its history they tend to concentrate on the big name scientists.

This attitude is a highly mistaken one that creates a falsified picture of scientific endeavour. Science is a collective enterprise in which the ‘scientists’ are only one part of a collective consisting of scientists, technicians, instrument designers and makers, and other supportive workers without whom the scientist could not carry out his or her work. This often includes such ignored people as the secretaries, or in earlier times amanuenses, who wrote up the scientific reports or life partners who, invisible in the background, often carried out much of the drudgery of scientific investigation. My favourite example being William Herschel’s sister and housekeeper, Caroline (a successful astronomer in her own right), who sieved the horse manure on which he bedded his self cast telescope mirrors to polish them.

Translators very definitely belong to the long list of so-called helpers without whom the scientific endeavour would grind to a halt. It was translators who made the Babylonian astronomy and astrology accessible to their Greek heirs thus making possible the work of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Ptolemaeus and many others. It was translators who set the ball rolling for those Islamic, or if you prefer Arabic, scholars when they translated the treasures of Greek science into Arabic. It was again translators who kicked off the various scientific Renaissances in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries and again in the fifteenth-century, thereby making the so-called European scientific revolution possible. All of these translators were also more or less scientists in their own right as without a working knowledge of the subject matter that they were translating they would not have been able to render the texts from one language into another. In fact there are many instances in the history of the transmission of scientific knowledge where an inadequate knowledge of the subject at hand led to an inaccurate or even false translation causing major problems for the scholars who tried to understand the texts in the new language. Translators have always been and continue to be an important part of the scientific endeavour.

The two most important works on celestial mechanics produced in Europe in the long eighteenth-century were Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. The former was originally published in Latin, with an English translation being published shortly after the author’s death, and the latter in French. This meant that these works were only accessible to those who mastered the respective language. It is a fascinating quirk of history that the former was rendered into French and that latter into English in each case by a women; Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet translated Newton’s masterpiece into French and Mary Somerville translated Laplace’s pièce de résistance into English. I have blogged about Émilie de Châtelet before but who was Mary Somerville? (1)


Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

She was born Mary Fairfax, the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, and Mary Charters at Jedburgh in the Scottish boarders on 26 December 1780. Her parents very definitely didn’t believe in education for women and she spent her childhood wandering through the Scottish countryside developing a lifelong love of nature. At the age of ten, still semi-illiterate, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school at Musselburgh in Midlothian for one year; the only formal schooling she would ever receive. As a young lady she received lessons in dancing, music, painting and cookery. At the age of fifteen she came across a mathematical puzzle in a ladies magazine (mathematical recreation columns were quite common in ladies magazines in the 18th and 19th-centuries!) whilst visiting friends. Fascinated by the symbols that she didn’t understand, she was informed that it was algebra, a word that meant nothing to her. Later her painting teacher revealed that she could learn geometry from Euclid’s Elements whilst discussing the topic of perspective. With the assistance of her brother’s tutor, young ladies could not buy maths-books, she acquired a copy of the Euclid as well as one of Bonnycastle’s Algebra and began to teach herself mathematics in the secrecy of her bedroom. When her parents discovered this they were mortified her father saying to her mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There is X., who went raving mad about the longitude.” They forbid her studies, but she persisted rising before at dawn to study until breakfast time. Her mother eventually allowed her to take some lessons on the terrestrial and celestial globes with the village schoolmaster.

In 1804 she was married off to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, like her father a naval officer but in the Russian Navy. He, like her parents, disapproved of her mathematical studies and she seemed condemned to the life of wife and mother. She bore two sons in her first marriage, David who died in infancy and Woronzow, who would later write a biography of Ada Lovelace. One could say fortunately, for the young Mary, her husband died after only three years of marriage in 1807 leaving her well enough off that she could now devote herself to her studies, which she duly did. Under the tutorship of John Wallace, later professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, she started on a course of mathematical study, of mostly French books but covering a wide range of mathematical topic, even tacking Newton’s Principia, which she found very difficult. She was by now already twenty-eight years old. During the next years she became a fixture in the highest intellectual circles of Edinburgh.

In 1812 she married for a second time, another cousin, William Somerville and thus acquired the name under which she would become famous throughout Europe. Unlike her parents and Samuel Grieg, William vigorously encouraged and supported her scientific interests. In 1816 the family moved to London. Due to her Scottish connections Mary soon became a member of the London intellectual scene and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and many, many others; all of whom treated Mary as an equal in their wide ranging scientific discussions. In 1817 the Somervilles went to Paris where Mary became acquainted with the cream of the French scientists, including Biot, Arago, Cuvier, Guy-Lussac, Laplace, Poisson and many more.

In 1824 William was appointed Physician to Chelsea Hospital where Mary began a series of scientific experiments on light and magnetism, which resulted in a first scientific paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826. In 1836, a second piece of Mary’s original research was presented to the Académie des Sciences by Arago. The third and last of her own researches appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1845. However it was not as a researcher that Mary Somerville made her mark but as a translator and populariser.

In 1827 Henry Lord Brougham and Vaux requested Mary to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into English for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Initially hesitant she finally agreed but only on the condition that the project remained secret and it would only be published if judged fit for purpose, otherwise the manuscript should be burnt. She had met Laplace in 1817 and had maintained a scientific correspondence with him until his death in 1827. The translation took four years and was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens, with a dedication to Lord Brougham, in 1831. The manuscript had been refereed by John Herschel, Britain’s leading astronomer and a brilliant mathematician, who was thoroughly cognisant with the original, he found the translation much, much more than fit for the purpose. Laplace’s original text was written in a style that made it inaccessible for all but the best mathematicians, Mary Somerville did not just translate the text but made it accessible for all with a modicum of mathematics, simplifying and elucidating as she went. This wasn’t just a translation but a masterpiece. The text proved too vast for Brougham’s Library of Useful Knowledge but on the recommendation of Herschel, the publisher John Murray published the book at his own cost and risk promising the author two thirds of the profits. The book was a smash hit the first edition of 750 selling out almost instantly following glowing reviews by Herschel and others. In honour of the success the Royal Society commissioned a bust of Mrs Somerville to be placed in their Great Hall, she couldn’t of course become a member!

At the age of fifty-one Mary Somerville’s career as a science writer had started with a bang. Her Laplace translation was used as a textbook in English schools and universities for many years and went through many editions. Her elucidatory preface was extracted and published separately and also became a best seller. If she had never written another word she would still be hailed as a great translator and science writer but she didn’t stop here. Over the next forty years Mary Somerville wrote three major works of semi-popular science On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1st ed. 1834), Physical Geography (1st ed. 1848), (she was now sixty-eight years old!) and at the age of seventy-nine, On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1st ed. 1859). The first two were major successes, which went through many editions each one extended, brought up to date, and improved. The third, which she later regretted having published, wasn’t as successful as her other books. Famously, in the history of science, William Whewell in his anonymous 1834 review of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences first used the term scientist, which he had coined a year earlier, in print but not, as is oft erroneously claimed, in reference to Mary Somerville.

Following the publication of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences Mary Somerville was awarded a state pension of £200 per annum, which was later raised to £300. Together with Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville became the first female honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society just one of many memberships and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout Europe and America. Somerville College Oxford, founded seven years after her death, was also named in her honour. She died on 28 November 1872, at the age of ninety-one, the obituary which appeared in the Morning Post on 2 December said, “Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” The Times of the same date, “spoke of the high regard in which her services to science were held both by men of science and by the nation”.

As this is my contribution to Ada Lovelace day celebrating the role of women in the history of science, medicine, engineering, mathematics and technology I will close by mentioning the role that Mary Somerville played in the life of Ada. A friend of Ada’s mother, the older women became a scientific mentor and occasional mathematics tutor to the young Miss Byron. As her various attempts to make something of herself in science or mathematics all came to nought Ada decided to take a leaf out of her mentor’s book and to turn to scientific translating. At the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone she chose to translate Luigi Menabrea’s essay on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, at Babbage’s suggestion elucidating the original text as her mentor had elucidated Laplace and the rest is, as they say, history. I personally would wish that the founders of Ada Lovelace Day had chosen Mary Somerville instead, as their galleon figure, as she contributed much, much more to the history of science than her feted protégée.

(1) What follows is largely a very condensed version of Elizabeth  C. Patterson’s excellent Somerville biography Mary Somerville, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, 1969, pp. 311-339



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

Polluting Youtube once again!

Professor Christopher M Graney, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, has posted another of his holiday videos on Youtube, documenting parts of his visit to Nürnberg and Bamberg for the Astronomy in Franconia Conferences. In his new video “Nürnberg and Bamberg” you can see the Behaim Globe (Martin Behaim celebrates his 555th birthday today!), the Frauenkirche Clock (1509) doing its thing, and yours truly wittering on about Johannes Petreius and Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (4.11–6.56)

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Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

Jesuit Day

Adam Richter (@AdamDRichter) of the Wallifaction Blog (he researches John Wallis) tells me that the Society of Jesus, known colloquially as the Jesuits, was officially recognised by Pope Paul III on 27th September 1540. He gives a short list of Jesuits who have contributed to the history of science over the centuries. Since this blog started I have attempted to draw my readers attention to those contributions by profiling individual Jesuits and their contributions and also on occasions defending them against their largely ignorant critics. I have decided to use this anniversary to feature those posts once again for those who came later to this blog and might not have discovered them yet.

My very first substantive post on this blog was about Christoph Clavius the Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit university in Rome, who as an educational reformer introduced the mathematical sciences into the curricula of Catholic schools and universities in the Early Modern Period. I wrote about Clavius then because I was holding a lecture on him at The Remeis Observatory in Bamberg, his hometown, as part of the International Year of Astronomy. I shall be holding another lecture on Clavius in Nürnberg at the Nicolaus Copernicus Planetarium at 7:00 pm on 12 November 2014 as part of the “GestHirne über Franken – Leitfossilien fränkischer Astronomie“ series. If you’re in the area you’re welcome to come along and throw peanuts.

I wrote a more general rant on the Jesuits’ contributions to science in response to some ignorant Jesuit bashing from prominent philosopher and gnu atheist A. C. Grayling, which also links to a guest post I wrote on Evolving Thoughts criticising an earlier Grayling attack on them. This post also has a sequel.

One of Clavius’ star pupils was Matteo Ricci who I featured in this post.

A prominent Jesuit astronomer, later in the seventeenth-century, was Riccioli who put the names on the moon. I have also blogged about Chris Graney’s translation of Riccioli’s 126 arguments pro and contra heliocentricity. Chris, a friend and guest blogger on the Renaissance Mathematicus, has got a book coming out next year on The University of Notre Dame Press entitled Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo. It’s going to be a good one, so look out for it.

Riccioli’s partner in crime was another Jesuit, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, who features in this post on Refraction, refrangibility, diffraction or inflexion.

At the end of the seventeenth-century the Jesuit mathematician, Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri, without quite realising what he had achieved, came very close to discovering non-Euclidian geometry.

In the eighteenth-century a towering figure of European science was the Croatian Jesuit polymath, Ruđer Josip Bošković.

This is by no means all of the prominent Jesuit scientists in the Early Modern Period and I shall no doubt return to one or other of them in future posts.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

If you’re going to pontificate about the history of science then at least get your facts right!

Recently, my attention was drawn to an article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, on The Week website, telling the world what the real meaning of ‘science’ is (h/t Peter Broks @peterbroks). According to Mr Gobry science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation [his emphasis]. This definition is of course totally inadequate but I’m not going to try and correct it in what follows; I gave up trying to find a simple all encompassing definition of science, a hopeless endeavour, a long time ago. However Mr Gobry takes us on a whirlwind tour of the history of science that is to say the least bizarre not to mention horribly inaccurate and in almost all of its details false. It is this part of his article that I’m going to look at here. He writes:

A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

What we now know as the “scientific revolution” was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.

Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.

This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon.

Where to start? We will follow the Red King’s advice to Alice, “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Ignoring the fact that it is highly anachronistic to refer to anybody as a scientist, even if you qualify it with a proto-, before 1834, the very first sentence is definitively wrong. Sticking with Mr Gobry’s terminology Aristotle was by no means the first proto-scientists. In fact it would be immensely difficult to determine exactly who deserves this honour. Traditional legend or mythology attributes this title to Thales amongst the Greeks but ignores Babylonian, Indian and Chinese thinkers who might have a prior claim. Just staying within the realms of Greek thought Eudoxus and Empedocles, who both had a large influence on Aristotle, have as much right to be labelled proto-scientists and definitely lived earlier than him. Aristotle was also by no means the first person to propose a systematic epistemology. It would appear that Mr Gobry slept through most of his Greek philosophy classes, that’s if he ever took any, which reading what he wrote I somehow doubt.

We then get told that Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. Now a lot of what Aristotle said and a lot of his methodology turned out in the long run to be wrong but that is true of almost all major figures in the history of science. Aristotle put forward ideas and concepts in a fairly systematic manner for people to accept or reject as they saw fit. He laid down a basis for rational discussion, a discussion that would, with time, propel science, that is our understanding of the world in which we live, forwards. I’m sorry Mr Gobry, but a Bronze Age thinker living on the fertile plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates is not coming to come up with the theory of Quantum Electro Dynamics whilst herding his goats; science doesn’t work like that. Somebody suggest an explanatory model that others criticise and improve, sometimes replacing it with a new model with greater explanatory power, breadth, depth or whatever. Aristotle’s models and methodologies were very good ones for the time in which he lived and for the knowledge basis available to him and without him or somebody like him, even if he were wrong, no science would have developed.

Gobry is right in saying that the traditional interpretation of the so-called scientific revolution consisted of a repudiation of Aristotelian philosophy, a point of view that has become somewhat more differentiated in more recent research, a complex problem that I don’t want to go into now. However he is wrong to suggest that Aristotle’s epistemology was replaced by reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. Science in the Early Modern Period still has a strong non-experimental metaphysical core. Kepler, for example, didn’t arrive at his three laws of planetary motion through experimentation but on deriving rules from empirical observations.

Gobry’s next claim would be hilarious if he didn’t mean it seriously. Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). Aristotle never demonstrated the fact that heavier objects fall faster than light ones; he observed it. In fact Mr Gobry could observe it for himself anytime he wants. He just needs to carry out the experiment. In the real world heavier objects do fall faster than light ones largely because of air resistance. What Aristotle describes is an informal form of Stokes’ Law, which describes motion in a viscous fluid, air being a viscous fluid. Aristotle wasn’t wrong he was just describing fall in the real world. What makes Gobry’s claim hilarious is that Galileo challenged this aspect of Aristotle’s theories of motion not with experimentation but with a legendary thought experiment. He couldn’t have disproved it with an experiment because he didn’t have the necessary vacuum chamber. Objects of differing weight only fall at the same rate in a vacuum. The experimentation to which Gobry is referring is Galileo’s use of an inclined plane to determine the laws of fall, a different thing altogether.

We now arrive at Gobry’s biggest error, and one that produced snorts of indignation from my friend Pete Langman (@elegantfowl), a Bacon expert. Gobry tells us that Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment. This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. Galileo’s methodology of science was basically the hypothetical deductive methodology that most people regard as the methodology of science today. Bacon however propagated an inductive methodology that consists of accumulating empirical data until a critical mass is reached and the theories, somehow, crystallise out by themselves. (Apologies to all real philosophers and epistemologists for these too short and highly inadequate descriptions!) These two epistemologies stood in stark contrast to each other and have even been considered contradictory. In reality, I think, scientific methodology consists of elements of both methodologies along with other things. However the main point is that Bacon did not formalise Galileo’s methodology but produced a completely different one of his own.

Apparently Mr Gobry also slept through his Early Modern Period philosophy classes.




Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

I expected better of Tim Radford

Tim Radford is a science writer who works for The Guardian newspaper. In fact many people consider him the best British science writer of the current crop, not without a certain amount of justification. Because of this I was, as a historian of science, more than disappointed by the opening paragraph of his latest post on the science section of the Guardian’s website, a book review: “The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf review – a cosmic quest”. Radford opens his review with three sentences of which the third caused me to groan inwardly and bang my head in resignation on my computer keyboard.

The Copernican principle changed everything. It was not formulated by Copernicus, who in 1543 proposed only that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and that the motion of the Earth around the sun could explain the irregularities in the heavens. At the time, ideas like that could get people condemned to the stake. [my emphasis]

I ask myself how much longer historians of science are going to have to keep repeating that this statement is complete and utter rubbish before science writers like Tim Radford finally take their hands off their ears and the blinkers from their eyes and actually accept that it is wrong. No Mr Radford, an astronomer or cosmologist in the sixteenth-century suggesting that we live in a heliocentric cosmos rather than a geocentric one was not in danger of being condemned to the stake and yes there is solid historical evidence, which apparently you choose to ignore in favour of your fantasies, to prove this. Let us briefly review that evidence for those, like Tim Radford, who have obviously not been paying attention.

Already in the fifteenth- century Nicholas Cusanus openly discussed various aspects of the heliocentric hypothesis in his works, presenting them in a favourable light. Was he condemned to the stake for his audacity? No he was treated as an honoured Church scholar and appointed cardinal.

Let us move on to the subject of Radford’s highly inaccurate statement, Copernicus, like Cusanus a cleric and a member of the Church establishment, how did the Church react to his provocative heliocentric claims? In 1533 the papal secretary, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter held a lecture on Copernicus’ theories to Pope Clemens VII and assembled company in the papal gardens. We assume this was based on Copernicus’ Commentariolus, the manuscript pamphlet of his ideas written around 1510, as De revolutionibus wasn’t published until 1543. Was he condemned to the stake for his rashness? No, Clemens found much favour in his lecture and awarded him a valuable present for his troubles. Two years later Widmannstetter became secretary to Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, an archbishop and papal legate, who had been present at that lecture. In 1536 Schönberg wrote a letter to Copernicus urging him to make his theories public and even offering to pay the costs of having his manuscript copied. Not a lot of condemning to the stake going on there. Copernicus had Schönberg’s letter printed in the front of De revolutionibus.

Dear Tim Radford I am sure that as a topflight science writer you check the scientific facts in the articles that you write very carefully to ensure that you are not misleading your many readers. May I humbly request that in future you pay the same attention to the historical facts that you publish so as not to serve up your readers with pure unadulterated historical hogwash?

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Galileo, Foscarini, The Catholic Church, and heliocentricity in 1615 Part 2 –the consequences: A Rough Guide.

In part one I outlined the clash, which took place between Galileo and Foscarini on the one side and the Catholic Church on the other in the second decade of the seventeenth-century. I ended by saying that this initial confrontation had very few consequences for Galileo at the time, who continued to be the highly feted darling of the North Italian in-crowd, including the higher echelons of the Catholic Church. Of course the events of 1615/16 would come back to haunt Galileo when he was tried for writing and publishing his Dialogo in the 1630s but that is a very complex topic that require a post of its own sometime in the future. I also wrote that the books of Foscarini and of the Protestant Copernicans, Michael Maestlin and Johannes Kepler were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Interestingly De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected. It is here that we will pick up the thread and examine the consequences of the Church’s actions on the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century.

What did it mean when I say that De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected? This means that De revolutionibus was not forbidden but that only those statements within the book, which claimed that heliocentricity was a proven fact, were to be removed. This mild censorship, only a handful of passages in the whole book were affected, was carried out comparatively quickly and the thus censored version was given free to be used by astronomers already in 1621. The whole of this episode demonstrates that the powers that be within the Church were well aware that De revolutionibus was an important astronomical text and should, despite the judgement of the eleven members of the commission set up to adjudicate on the affair that the idea that the Sun is stationary is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith”, remain available to Catholic astronomers for their studies.

There is a widespread popular perception that the Church’s theological rejection of the theory of heliocentricity led to a breakdown of astronomical research in Catholic countries in the seventeenth-century. Nothing could be further from the truth. As mentioned in the first part of this post, some historians think that Cardinal Bellarmino’s admission in his letter to Foscarini that … if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary …, was interpreted by many Jesuit and Jesuit educated astronomers as a challenge to find an empirical proof for heliocentricity. As we shall see there is quite a lot of circumstantial evidence to support this claim.

An important historical fact to be born in mind when considering the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century was that there existed no empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis, whether it be in the original form proposed by Copernicus or the much more sophisticated form developed by Kepler. The astronomers would have to wait until 1725 before James Bradley delivered the first proof of the earth’s annual orbit around the sun with his discovery of stellar aberration and slightly longer before the geodesists demonstrated that the earth is an oblate spheroid thus confirming a prediction made by both Newton and Huygens that diurnal rotation would result in the earth having this form thus proving indirectly the existence of diurnal rotation. This tends to be forgotten or simply ignored by those claiming that the Church should have accepted heliocentricity as a fact in 1615. In reality the heliocentricity became accepted by almost all astronomers whether Catholic or non-Catholic by around 1660, long before any empirical proof existed, on the basis of accumulated circumstantial evidence and the lack of a convincing alternative. A lot of that circumstantial evidence was delivered by Catholic astronomers, who despites the Catholic theological position, continued to work avidly on the development of the modern astronomy.

It is also important to realise that although the Church banned claiming that heliocentricity was a fact, the heliocentric theory, it was still perfectly possible to speculate about heliocentricity, the heliocentric hypothesis. Throughout the seventeenth-century Catholic astronomers in Italy adopted an interesting strategy to deal with the Church’s ban of the heliocentric theory. They would preface their works with a statement of the fact that in its wisdom the Church had shown the heliocentric theory to be contrary to Holy Scripture and thus factually false and then proceed to discuss this interesting mathematical hypothesis without claiming it to be true. This strategy sufficed for the Inquisition’s guardians of the truth and thus the astronomers continued to discuss and disseminate heliocentricity with impunity.

Scientific theories are not only disseminated by their supporters but often also by their opponents. Long before Galileo muddy the waters with his heated challenge to the Church’s exclusive right to interpret the Bible it is certain that more people learnt of the existence of the heliocentric hypothesis and its basic details from the works of Christoph Clavius, a convinced defender of geocentricity, than from De revolutionibus. In his commentary on the Sphere of Sacrobosco, an introductory astronomy textbook, Clavius discussed Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis sympathetically, respecting its mathematical sophistication, whilst firmly rejecting it. This book went through numerous editions and was the most widely disseminated and read, by both Catholic and Protestant students, astronomy textbook throughout most of the seventeenth-century and was for many their first introduction to the ideas of Copernicus. It was also Clavius’ postgraduate students, in his institute for mathematical research at the Collegio Romano, who provided the very necessary empirical confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries in 1611, shortly before Clavius’ death. This activity by Jesuit astronomers pushing the boundaries of astronomical knowledge did not cease following the decisions of 1616.

There was a slowdown in the development of modern astronomy in the second and third decades of the seventeenth-century that has nothing to do with the Church’s ban but was the result of a lack of technological advance. In the four years between 1609 and 1613 European astronomers had discovered everything that it was possible to discover using a Dutch or Galilean telescope with a convex objective and a concave eyepiece. The only new discoveries were the observations of a transit of Mercury by Gassendi in 1631 and a transit of Venus by Horrocks in 1639 neither of which had an immediate impact because they didn’t become widely known until much later. For various reasons, not least Galileo’s very public rejection of it as inferior, the superior Keplerian or astronomical telescope, with two convex lenses, didn’t start to become established until the 1640s. However once established the new discoveries began to flow again: the moons of Saturn, the rings of Saturn, diurnal rotation of the planets. Many of these new discoveries, which added new circumstantial evidence for heliocentricity, were made by Giovanni Domenico (Jean-Dominique) Cassini (1625–1712) a Jesuit educated Catholic astronomer. It was also Cassini, with the support of his teachers the Jesuits Giovanni Battista Riccioli and Francesco Maria Grimaldi, who proved, using the heliometer constructed for this purpose in the San Petronio church in Bologna, that either the sun’s orbit around the earth or the earth’s orbit around the sun must be an ellipse, as required by Kepler. Although this proved that the orbit is an ellipse it didn’t show which system was correct.

Cassini, who would go on to become the leading observational astronomer in Europe, always avoided committing himself to any systems simply delivering empirical results and leaving the cosmological interpretation to others. Although confirming Cassini’s heliometer results Riccioli stayed committed to semi-Tychonic system, in which the inner planets orbited the Sun, which in turn together with Saturn and Jupiter orbited the Earth. Riccioli presented this rather bizarre mongrel in his Almagestum Novum published in 1651. Riccioli’s Almagestum contained descriptions of all the various possible systems, including the Copernican, and became a very widely disseminated and read technical textbook for astronomers, both Catholic and Protestant. Like Clavius before him, Riccioli introduced many to heliocentricity for the first time. The Almagestum contained 126 arguments concerning the Earth’s motion 49 pro and 77 contra the most extensive discussion of the problem ever. You can read Chris Graney’s English translation of the arguments here. Although Riccioli came out against heliocentricity his analysis was sympathetic enough to the concept that he was actually investigated by the Inquisition.

Having been made available by the Index copies of De revolutionibus appear only to have been actually censored within Italy nearly all the surviving censored copies, including Galileo’s, coming from there. Outside of Italy, with the notable exception of Descartes, nobody seems to have taken very much notice of the Inquisition’s ban. Descartes appears to have withheld publication of his The World, in the 1630s, containing his defence of heliocentricity, out of respect for his Jesuit teachers. Publishing his views, in modified form, first in his Principles of Philosophy in 1644.

Another Frenchman, Pierre Gassendi like Descartes educated by the Jesuits, who became professor of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris in 1645 published his views on astronomy in his Institutio astronomica, although formally a supporter of the Tychonic system, Gassendi’s presentation of the Copernican system is so sympathetic that many historians have interpreted him as a secret supporter of heliocentricity. Gassendi also published biographies of Tycho, Peuerbach, Regiomontanus and Copernicus. Like Riccioli, Gassendi’s astronomical writings were very popular and very widely read, again leading to a widespread dissemination of the principles of heliocentricity.

Another leading French Catholic astronomer, Ismael Boulliau was an open and avid supporter of the Keplerian elliptical astronomy and was indeed the first to hypothesise that gravity ought to be an inverse quadrate force, a significant step in the road to acceptance of heliocentricity. It was Boulliau’s dispute with the English astronomer Seth Ward about Kepler’s second law, which nobody liked, both parties offering alternatives, that first made Newton aware of Kepler’s system.

By about 1660 enough circumstantial evidence had been accumulated that most astronomers in Europe both Catholic and Protestant, with the necessary education to do so, had accepted heliocentricity as a fact with a small minority still holding out for a Tychonic system. In the end the Tychonic system had fallen victim of Ockham’s razor being viewed as overly complex in comparison with the Keplerian elliptical system for which more and more evidence had accumulated throughout the preceding fifty years. A significant advance in the development of modern physics in which Galileo’s Discorsi had played an important role also contributed crucially to this acceptance, dealing as it did with the physical problems of terrestrial motion. A detailed analysis of these developments would make this already over long post even longer and must be dealt with separately.

Although by no means an exhaustive presentation of the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century, I think the above contains enough to demonstrate that the Church’s ban of the heliocentric theory had very little negative influence on that development and that Catholic astronomers played a leading role within it. Returning to my earlier speculation, I feel justified in saying that had Galileo and Foscarini not forced the Church’s theologians into a corner in 1615, then the Catholic astronomers, and in particular the Jesuits and their pupils, would have led the Church to an acceptance of heliocentricity within the seventeenth-century.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science